Custer State Park: A Black Hills Gem

Custer State Park offers forest, meadows, mountains, and wildlife including a herd of 1,300 bison

Custer State Park in the beautiful Black Hills of western South Dakota is famous for its bison herds, other wildlife, scenic drives, historic sites, visitor centers, fishing lakes, resorts, campgrounds, and interpretive programs. In fact, it was named as one of the World’s Top Ten Wildlife Destinations for the array of wildlife within the park’s borders and for the unbelievable access visitors have to them.

Bison herd in Custer State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

One of America’s largest state parks, Custer has been home to diverse cultural heritages for thousands of years and has provided an array of scenic beauty and outdoor recreation for visitors since the early 1900s. Custer State Park is full of lush forests, quiet and serene meadows, and majestic mountains. Few truly wild places remain in this country. Custer State Park is one of them.

Thirty to sixty million bison once roamed the great plains of North America. By the close of the 19th century, it’s estimated that less than 1,000 bison survived. Historically, the animal played an essential role in the lives of the Lakota (Sioux), who relied on the “Tatanka” for food, clothing, and shelter.

Bison in Custer State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Today, nearly 1,300 bison wander the park’s 71,000 acres of mountains, hills, and prairie which they share with a wealth of wildlife including pronghorn antelope, elk, white-tailed and mule deer, bighorn sheep, mountain goats, coyotes, wild turkeys, a band of burros, and whole towns of adorable prairie dogs.

Bison herd in Custer State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The bison herd roams freely throughout the park and is often found along the 18-mile Wildlife Loop Road in the southern part of the park. Bison seem docile but can run very fast and turn on a dime. Weighing as much as 2,000 pounds, these animals are forces to be reckoned with. Visitors should stay inside their vehicles when viewing the bison and not get too close. Most wildlife can easily be seen from your car. Bear in mind, they are wild. Keep your distance.

Visit the last Friday in September and feel the thunder and join the herd at the annual Custer State Park Buffalo Roundup (September 24, in 2021). Watch cowboys and cowgirls as they round up and drive the herd of approximately 1,300 buffalo. Not only is the roundup a spectacular sight to see, but it is also a critical management tool in maintaining a strong and healthy herd.

Bison in Custer State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Buffalo Roundup begins at 9:30 a.m. with the parking lots opening at 6:15 a.m. Arrive early to pick your spot. Guests must stay in the viewing areas until the herd is safely in the corrals, generally around noon. Breakfast is available at 6:15 a.m. in both viewing areas. Lunch is served at the corrals once the buffalo are rounded up. There is a fee for both meals. Testing, branding, and sorting of the buffalo begins at 1 p.m. and lasts until approximately 3 p.m. Crews will work the remainder of the herd in October.

In addition to wildlife, the park features several historic sites, including the State Game Lodge, the Badger Hole, the Gordon Stockade, the Peter Norbeck Visitor Center, and the Mount Coolidge Fire Tower. The Black Hills Playhouse, which hosts performances each summer, is also located within the park, as are four resorts, each offering lodging, dining, and activities.

Sylvan Lake in Custer State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The park also has four mountain lakes. These lakes, along with several streams, offer many water recreation and fishing opportunities.

In March 1919, Custer State Park was named the first official state park. In 2019, South Dakota’s oldest state park celebrated 100 years of outdoor tradition. Each year, more than 1.5 million visitors enjoy the numerous and varied activities, attractions, and events found year-round within Custer State Park.

Needles Highway in Custer State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The park is a driver’s delight. There are three scenic drives—Needles Highway, Iron Mountain Road, and Wildlife Loop Road—which are part of the extensive network of backcountry lanes on the Peter Norbeck Scenic Byway for 70 miles, the route threads its way around pigtail bridges, through one-lane rock-walled tunnels, and ascends to the uppermost heights of the Needles.

The Needles in Custer State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The needle-like granite formations that seem to pierce the horizon in Custer State Park, known as the Needles, are truly see-it-to-believe-it phenomena. Drive Needles Highway to see for yourself just how majestic these outcroppings are in person. The Needles Highway is much more than a 14-mile road—it’s a spectacular drive through pine and spruce forests, meadows surrounded by birch and aspen, and rugged granite mountains.

Custer State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The adventurous should carve out time to hike Cathedral Spires Trail. This moderate 1.5-mile trail offers spectacular views of these unique rock formations. You’ll likely pass rock climbers hauling gear in or out of the trail, as the spires are home to some of the most sought-after climbing routes in the Black Hills.

Wild burros seeking handouts in Custer State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Other top trails include Sunday Gulch Trail, Little Devils Tower Trail, Lover’s Leap Trail, and Sylvan Lake Shore Trail. You can begin your trek to Black Elk Peak at one of two trailheads within the park.

The roadway was carefully planned by former South Dakota Governor Peter Norbeck, who marked the entire course on foot and by horseback. Construction was completed in 1922.

Pronghorns in Custer State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Visitors traveling the highway pass Sylvan Lake and a unique rock formation called the Needle’s Eye, so named for the opening created by wind, rain, freezing, and thawing.

The 18-mile Wildlife Loop Road takes visitors through open grasslands and pine-speckled hills that much of the park’s wildlife call home.

Mount Rushmore from the Iron Mountain Road in Custer State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The 18-mile Iron Mountain Road winds between Mount Rushmore National Memorial and the junction of U.S. 16A and SR 36. Constructed in 1933, only a portion of this road lies within the park, but it is a must-see.

The Peter Norbeck Scenic Byway complements the park’s three scenic drives and includes some of the most dramatic natural and historic features in the Black Hills.

Camping in Custer State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Following an action-packed day, sleep under the stars in Custer State Park. There are nine campgrounds tucked away in ponderosa pine forests, alongside fresh flowing streams, or near a mountain lake. The choice is yours! Campsites accommodate RVs and tents. Each campsite offers gravel or paved camping pad, a fire grate, and a picnic table. Electric hookups are available in most campgrounds. Or, you can relax in a one-room, log-style camping cabin or historic lodge located throughout the park.

The clear mountain waters are inviting and the open ranges are waiting to be discovered. Bring your family to Custer State Park and let yourself run wild.

Worth Pondering…

When your spirit cries for peace, come to a world of canyons deep in an old land; feel the exultation of high plateaus, the strength of moving wasters, the simplicity of sand and grass, and the silence of growth.

—August Fruge

The Ultimate South Dakota Road Trip Itinerary

Discover Mount Rushmore, Badlands National Park, Custer State Park, Sioux Falls, and more on a road trip through South Dakota

South Dakota was made for road trips: There are scenic, paved roads that lead to national treasures, natural anomalies, perfectly preserved Wild West towns, and quirky attractions. Whether you’re a history buff, foodie, or nature lover, this Midwest state delivers. Read on for the ultimate South Dakota road trip itinerary including where to stop, what to do, and more.

Mitchell Corn Palace © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mitchell Corn Palace

Any drive through the Midwest will bring you face-to-face with cornstalks taller than you can imagine. The Mitchell Corn Palace in South Dakota celebrates all things corn—starting with this prairie town in the middle of nowhere. A pair of rounded turrets and two massive domes thrust into the sky capping off walls adorned in six different types of native grass and multi-story murals depicting famous South Dakota sights. A marquee reading “South Dakota Home Grown” stands over the main entrance. All of it is made from multi-colored ears of corn.

Wall Drug Store © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Wall Drug Store

Nestled in the town of Wall in the western part of the state, Wall Drug has grown from its humble beginnings in 1931 to a thriving oasis. Wall Drug offers dining, activities, gifts and souvenirs, visitor information and, of course, free ice water. Many road-worn travelers stop at Wall Drug and leave awake and refreshed just like they did more than 80 years ago. 

Wall Drug Store © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

But it wasn’t always a thriving business attracting 2 million visitors each year to the small town of Wall. Ted and Dorothy Hustead struggled to make Wall Drug successful in the early days. But the story of Wall Drug was a story of success because one simple idea took root: Offering travelers free ice water. Soon travelers would make a point to stop at Wall Drug to enjoy a refreshing break and they haven’t stopped coming to Wall Drug since. Stop at Wall Drug and see what the excitement is all about.

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Badlands National Park

At first blush, it doesn’t sound like the best place to go. After all, it’s called Badlands! But it’s gorgeous with towering, striated red-and-gray rock formations. Not to mention all the wildlife visitors can see here—big-horned sheep, bison, pronghorns, burrowing owls, and whole towns of adorable prairie dogs. Native Lakota people named this 400-square-mile maze of buttes, canyons, pinnacles, and spires “Mako Sica” or “Bad Land.” Nowadays, it is usually tagged as “surreal” or “otherworldly.” State Route 240—also known as the Badlands Loop State Scenic Byway—leads visitors on a 38-mile odyssey through the center of the park. The route features 16 scenic overlooks and eight trails, ranging from handicapped-accessible quarter-mile boardwalks to a 10-mile-long trek.

Custer State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Custer State Park

Nearly 1,300 magnificent bison wander the park’s 71,000 acres which they share with the swift pronghorn, shy elk, sure-footed mountain goats, and a band of curious burros. Visitors often enjoy close encounters with these permanent residents along the 18-mile Wildlife Loop Road that winds around the southern edge of the park. Slender granite formations nicknamed “the needles” dominate the skyline, and grassy meadows fill the valleys. Visitors can explore the park via trail rides, scenic drives, mountain bikes, paddle-boats, hay rides, and even safari tours.

Needles Highway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Needles Highway

The Needles Highway is more than a 14-mile road—it’s a spectacular drive through pine and spruce forests, meadows surrounded by birch and aspen, and rugged granite mountains. The road’s name comes from the needlelike granite formations that seem to pierce the horizon along the highway. Visitors traveling the highway pass Sylvan Lake and a unique rock formation called the Needle’s Eye, so named for the opening created by wind, rain, freezing, and thawing.

Sylvan Lake © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Midway along this route, a turnout called The Cathedral Spires offers stunning views of the rocky outcroppings juxtaposed with Harney Peak, the highest point between the Rockies and the Alps.

Mount Rushmore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mount Rushmore

It’s finally time to see the Founding Fathers’ faces carved into the mountain—the enormity of the sculpture is truly a sight to see. Each year, approximately three million tourists from all over the world visit Mount Rushmore to experience this patriotic site. Today, the wonder of the mountain reverberates through every visitor. The four “great faces” of the Presidents tower 5,725 feet above sea level and are scaled to men who would stand 465 feet tall. The park includes a half-mile walking trail, museum, gift shop and dining room. 

Worth Pondering…

Let us place there, carved high, as close to heaven as we can, the words of our leaders, their faces, to show posterity what manner of men they were. Then breathe a prayer that these records will endure until the wind and rain alone shall wear them away.

—Gutzon Borglum, Mount Rushmore Sculptor, 1930

Needles Highway: National Scenic Byway in the Black Hills

Driving the Needles Highway isn’t about getting to the next destination—it’s about taking in the scenery

Highway 87 in South Dakota might not be that long, but it’s 14 miles of really awesome road that twists and turns its way through some of South Dakota’s most stunning natural scenery. This curvaceous stretch of narrow pavement, known as Needles Highway, travels through unique rock formations in the southeastern portion of Black Hills National Forest.

Needles Highway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

We traveled southbound from Medora and Theodore Roosevelt National Park in western North Dakota south into South Dakota for about four hours. Eventually, the oil derricks and rigs dotting the North Dakotan landscape gave way to vast and open tracks of South Dakota.

Needles Highway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

It’s a desolate place with a hauntingly beautiful feel. It consists of mostly flat and wild grassland. Colorful buttes and mesas pop up here and there. But then the Black Hills start.

Needles Highway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There is nothing quite like the Black Hills of South Dakota. Around Black Hills National Forest, one finds numerous well-known sites including Mount Rushmore, the work-in-progress Crazy Horse memorial, the town of Sturgis—famous for the Motorcycle Rally attracting 50,000 motorcyclists each year for ten days of wild partying, and Deadwood (famous for its gold mining and heavy-handed gambling past, also the resting place of Wild Bill Hickock and Calamity Jane). Of course, all of these sites are interesting and merit a visit of their own, but, when it comes to natural beauty, few can match the Needles Highway.

Needles Highway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

First arriving in the Black Hills, the thought “Black Hills Shmack Hills, what’s the big deal?” might be a fleeting thought. Trust me, just be patient and give it a little time because the 1.2 million acres of Ponderosa Pine forests and mountains will charm and win you over. You need to pay for a park pass upon entering—$10.00 per vehicle—and the pass is good for all South Dakota parks for seven days from the date of purchase.

Needles Highway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Something that makes the Black Hills unique is that the landscape is distinctly different from the high-altitude flat grasslands surrounding it. In fact, it is dubbed “an island in the plains”. The area is geologically old and stable but pockets of upheaval and volcanic activity have given rise to the hills. While they’re not super high in elevation, the centrally located Black Elk Peak does get up to and impressive 7,242 feet. And there are hiking trails and activities galore.

Needles Highway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Needles Highway is a National Scenic Byway completed in 1922 that was considered to be an impossible road to construct due to the series of sharp turns and tunnels that needed to be cut through solid rock while maintaining the integrity of the area. The road’s name comes from the needlelike granite formations that seem to pierce the horizon along the highway.

Needles Highway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Be sure to slow down to take it all in. Winding drives throughout the park are most enjoyable at a slower pace. Allow ample time to travel at a safe speed—generally 25 miles per hour or slower. Expect travel time of about 45 to 60 minutes to enjoy the Needles Highway.

Needles Highway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Needles Highway remains open from April through October. Due to the narrowness of the road, the byway is closed during winter months.

Needles Highway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Needles Highway is only 14 miles long but there are several great places to stay nearby. Custer State Park is packed with adventure but it’s also a great place to rest and recuperate. There are nine individual campgrounds for tent camping, RV camping, even camping for horses, so you’ll easily find a match for your camping needs. Several of Custer’s camping options come with electric and water hookups to meet all camping needs.

Needles Highway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

Keep close to Nature’s heart…and break clear away, once in awhile, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean.

—John Muir